Psychologist Cory Clark joins Chelsea Follett to discuss why people play the victim and the social costs of false victimhood.
Cory Clark: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 18 Transcript
The full conversation between Chelsea Follett and Cory Clark can be found here. The transcript is below.
Chelsea Follett: Joining us today is Cory Clark, a moral and political psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, whose research has been cited in the New York Times, NPR, Scientific American, and many other outlets. She co-hosts a podcast called Psyphilopod, and is also the executive director and co-founder of the Adversarial Collaboration Project, which is really neat, and hopefully we’ll have a moment to discuss that as well.
Chelsea Follett: But she joins us today mainly to discuss her fascinating piece in Quillette, The Evolutionary Advantages of Playing Victim, recently featured in that publication’s round-up of their best pieces on human nature of all time. It’s a really interesting piece. It explores the psychological phenomenon of falsely presenting oneself to be a victim, and I’m excited to discuss it. Cory, how are you?
Cory Clark: I’m doing well, how are you?
Chelsea Follett: I’m okay. So what’s the piece about and what inspired you to write it? What got you interested in this topic?
Cory Clark: Really, I actually just tweeted the article that was published, and then one of the editors at Quillette asked me if I wanted to write a piece on it. And I’d been doing quite a bit of reading on victimhood lately anyway, just because I find it a sort of fascinating topic. So it was kind of an excuse to take a step away from my research, which generally focuses on moral judgment and political bias. And it’s related to this issue, but this is sort of a little side intellectual interest of mine.
Cory Clark: And so I kind of just took the opportunity to do a little mini-literature review on what’s going on in the research on victimhood. It’s really emerged as a kind of hot topic just in the past few years, and people are suddenly realizing how important it is and how it’s impacting society, so I think this area will continue to grow and we’ll learn more and more about why people have this tendency to want to see themselves that way, and what are the benefits of being perceived as a victim.
Chelsea Follett: Right. You start out the piece by noting that we do not normally think of being a victim as something desirable. But just how much of an advantage can someone potentially gain by playing the victim, so to speak?
Cory Clark: Yeah, so certainly being a victim, actually being a victim, being victimized is not something that anybody desires, but what the research is increasingly showing is that when you portray yourself as a victim to other people, you get all kinds of rewards for being a victim. So the paper, the main paper I focused on in that piece was actually focusing on the personality behind presenting oneself as a victim, but one of the early studies was one where they had…
Cory Clark: Just an example of one of the studies was they had these different GoFundMe pages coming from, I believe, a student who was trying to raise tuition, and in one of the two cases, the student commented that they had this horrible upbringing and an abusive mother, and people expressed greater willingness to donate to the page of the person who portrayed themselves as a victim in their childhood.
Cory Clark: But there are other really interesting trends emerging about other kinds of power you can get from being a victim, so there’s this work by Kurt Gray from several years back, where he studies dyadic morality. So, this is the idea that immoral actions tend to have a victim and a perpetrator.
Cory Clark: And the more people are perceived as a perpetrator, the less they’re seen as a victim, but also vice versa. So if someone is portrayed as a victim, then they’re blamed less for doing immoral things themselves, so it kind of gives you this kind of moral impunity if you’re portrayed as a victim. And then in very recent work that I’m not even sure is published yet, this paper, I think it’s called Virtuous Victims, by Jillian Jordan.
Cory Clark: She finds that people view victims as morally good, so if you’re given identical descriptions of two people with a lot of details, even details about their moral character, but in one case, you say something bad happened to them, people view them as morally better people.
Cory Clark: So in addition to being able to get resources from people, “Look at this horrible thing that happened to me,” people want to compensate you, give you money, give you attention. People also can use their victim status to get away with immoral acts themselves and really just to boost their moral reputation. People view victims as morally better people.
Cory Clark: So there are a lot of benefits to potentially being viewed as a victim. Now, of course, being victimized, not a good thing. Being viewed as a victim, however, by other people can give you certain benefits.
Chelsea Follett: You’ve already mentioned an example of this phenomenon, the GoFundMe page that has more details of victimization, but do we have any idea of how widespread this phenomenon is?
Cory Clark: Do you mean in terms of faking victimhood?
Chelsea Follett: Yes.
Cory Clark: I don’t think we do. It would be really, really hard to test because people… Anyone who’s trying to fake victimhood is trying to get away with it, right? But I do think… So the one paper that kind of looked at the sort of underlying psychological tendencies was really looking at a certain kind of victim signaler, but I do think probably… Particularly one that would be sort of manipulative and try to take advantage of other people.
Cory Clark: But I do think probably almost everyone has a little bit of this tendency in themselves. There are, if you look at studies of how whether society works in your favor, if people like you are treated fairly, people tend to see themselves and their groups as disadvantaged relative to other groups.
Cory Clark: And there’s this emerging work on competitive victimhood, which finds that when people are accused of having relative advantages to other people, then they’re more likely to perceive themselves as a victim. And these are just normal everyday people, so it’s something that can be brought out in average people, depending on the situation.
Cory Clark: I think we all have a little bit of this inside of us where, whether we intuit it or we just observe it in the world that being a victim can get you certain advantages, sometimes we want to take advantage of that and portray ourselves as more of a victim than maybe we really are in a particular situation.
Chelsea Follett: You write about that competitive cycle of victimhood and you write that that cycle of competitive victimhood “infects everyone.” So to what extent is this behavior infectious, and how does it create maybe incentive structures where not crying victim means you lose out?
Cory Clark: So is “infectious” the best word to use? I’m not sure. I think it works fairly well. I guess I should say it’s cyclical. So there are these studies where they presented people with a description of society being sexist against women, women are relatively disadvantaged, and this is because men are sexist against women. And then that makes men see themselves as suffering more sexism themselves and discrimination.
Cory Clark: So we say men are sexist against women, and then men say women are sexist against men, and then there are studies that show that if you flip it and you present women with the description saying that women are sometimes sexist against men, then women amp up their own sexism against women.
Cory Clark: So when you point the finger at one group, saying one group is the victim of another, it incentivizes that other group to claim that, “No, in fact, we are the victims,” which then further incentivizes the initial group. [chuckle] So you can see it can escalate, and this would explain a lot of different intergroup conflicts, everyone has an incentive to perceive themselves as a victim, and then as both groups continue to escalate these claims, it just makes everyone want to see themselves that way more, and can make people not want to resolve conflicts with the other group.
Cory Clark: In terms of the incentives, yeah, I’ve thought a little bit about this. So somebody could suffer some kind of immoral infraction against them, someone harms them in some way, and they can do nothing about it and just say, “You know, that kind of stunk, that was unfair, but this kind of thing happens to people sometimes and I have to move on with my life.”
Cory Clark: Whereas another person can throw a fit about it, go on social media or on TikTok, I guess is what people are using these days. I don’t have a TikTok, but I’m connected enough to know that’s where people are going these days. [chuckle] Go on there and post a video about it, and hopefully it goes viral and they can get a lot of attention and followers because this horrible thing happened to them.
Cory Clark: And so in the first case, you see this person is maybe being a little bit more self-sufficient and dealing with their own problems, and this other person is kind of blowing this thing up, yet the latter person gets more benefits and is rewarded more for their reaction.
Cory Clark: So we’re taking a behavior that we probably wouldn’t want to incentivize among society at large, but we are incentivizing it because we have this empathy toward other people who are suffering. And it’s good that we have that, and it’s good that we want to help people who suffer, but at the same time, we’re creating this incentive for people to exaggerate what happened to them, or to just make a bigger deal out of things than they really need to be, and painting people as more of a villain than they really are.
Cory Clark: A lot of infractions are done on accident, they’re not intended to really be offensive or cause harm, but the people who don’t blow their thing up don’t get… Don’t get the attention and resources of other people.
Chelsea Follett: On that note — so in some cases, playing victim isn’t really an act, right? People have actually talked themselves into believing that they are a victim, or maybe they were victimized in a minor way, but they’re just exaggerating it. So could you talk a little bit more about that distinction? Some people actually lying, essentially, and other people really believing that they are a victim when they might not be, or maybe exaggerating their victimhood.
Cory Clark: Yeah, yeah, that’s a good point. There are probably a lot of different categories of people who would do this. One would just be actual, genuine victims, people who are struggling and they need assistance, and they know that they can go to social media and get assistance that way. So we don’t mind that kind.
Cory Clark: The other two would be people who are purposefully and knowingly deceiving other people, who are just fully making up stories to try to extract resources from other people, and there probably is some of that, but I suspect more often what you get is what you’re saying, where people are able to convince themselves that what happened to them really is this horrible offense.
Cory Clark: This is, like theories of human reasoning, there’s this idea that people are more persuasive toward other people if they can convince themselves of the thing they want other people to believe. Or I think there’s a, is it a George Costanza quote? “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” [chuckle] I’m not sure that’s right.
Cory Clark: But people who can persuade themselves that they are right and just and this thing was really bad, are gonna be better able to persuade other people. I’m trying to think of what a good example could be for something that would be… One that I think of is mansplaining. [chuckle] So people will complain about mansplaining, and probably sometimes there is a man who’s talking down to a woman in a condescending way, and he knows full well that she knows that information.
Cory Clark: But probably a lot of the time, the man just doesn’t know how much information the woman has on a particular topic and has explained to her, and she knows inside her own head because she knows herself, that she has that information already, and so she can interpret that as a sexist interaction, this guy thinks that she doesn’t have the expertise she has, and she can become outraged about it.
Cory Clark: So if she can convince herself that this guy really is sexist and is being condescending to her, she’ll be more outraged and she’ll feel justified in going on Twitter and writing a thread about this horrible exchange she just had with this guy she just met. So I suspect that probably the number one variety of people who are talking about their victimhood regularly is true victims.
Cory Clark: After that, it’s probably these people who’ve convinced themselves that some sort of ambiguous interaction was really harmful to them and that they have a right to go out and seek recompense from society for their suffering. And then the third kind would probably be the people who are just outright manipulative and lying and making things up. I don’t know how common each of these are, but that would be my estimate.
Chelsea Follett: That would be an interesting area for research. Although, as you mentioned, it’s really hard to…
Cory Clark: People who lie would lie. [chuckle]
Chelsea Follett: Yeah, you can’t make that distinction very easily.
Chelsea Follett: So obviously there are a number of social harms from this phenomenon, and we’ll get to those soon, but do you think playing victim can actually harm the person playing victim as well? Because if you talk yourself into believing you’re a victim, to me that sounds very stressful and unpleasant, and maybe you’re going through a lot of fear and stress that you don’t really need to be going through. Or is that counteracted by the outpouring of support and sympathy that you then get from others?
Cory Clark: Yeah, it probably would vary a lot from person to person. So you can imagine a situation where… So maybe you’ll get to this in your later questions, but there’s emerging evidence that there is actually a stable personality trait where some people are just prone to seeing themselves as victims.
Cory Clark: Now, presumably those kinds of people have social relationships with people and those people know them and they know that they’re that kind of person, and eventually they get kind of fed up with it, because they see this person constantly seeing the world as against them and maybe not taking responsibility for some of the things in their own life and pointing the finger at everyone else.
Cory Clark: Those people probably don’t get a lot of sympathy, at least from people who know them well, and so they’re not probably getting as many benefits as maybe someone who only occasionally signals their victimhood because that only happens to us so often in our lives. And it probably is a… It would not be a good personality trait to have, I think, because it’s associated with a lot of other anti-social beliefs and making bad attributions to other people.
Cory Clark: And if you come to view it that way yourself, you kind of see yourself as helpless in the world and things are just happening to you and you can’t do anything about it. There could be a self-fulfilling prophecy there, where you stop trying to correct the course of your life because you just view yourself as an agent of… Or not an agent, a patient of other people, then I suspect it could be really bad.
Cory Clark: Other people might get away with it better [chuckle] and reap some rewards and they might feel okay about it. So I suspect it would vary a lot, but it could have… It could have negative consequences for people who kind of become known or who are detected as these habitual victim signalers who really spend their life saying other people are constantly coming at them and harming them.
Chelsea Follett: Right, and I think seeing the world as worse than it really is, has to have a bunch of negative effects on you and your decision-making. But what is the psychological profile of someone with this kind of constant victim mentality that you’re talking about?
Cory Clark: It’s very unpleasant.
Cory Clark: So the main paper that I focused on, at least in the start of the Quillette essay, was this one on, it was looking at a personality trait called “virtuous victimhood.” Something like that. I think virtuous victimhood. And it’s people who have tendencies to signal their victimhood to other people, so these are people who frequently discuss to other people all of the things in their life that are preventing them from reaching their potential.
Cory Clark: Also virtue signalers, so people who claim to be morally good. However, in these studies, they also control for a moral self-identity, so how moral are these people, and they control for a variety of demographic variables. So they’re looking at this personality trait, this kind of personality where these people just wanna talk to other people about how good they are, and also how unfair the world treats them.
Cory Clark: And they find this is associated with, it’s called the “dark triad”, so it’s Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy. They’re interrelated, but it’s basically just being pretty self-centered, being manipulative and caring more about your own well-being than other people’s well-being, not having a lot of empathy for other people.
Cory Clark: In addition to that one, there was this other paper who… I’m forgetting the authors now, who’ve looked at this as a personality trait, just your tendency to see yourself as a victim. Not necessarily to tell other people you’re a victim all the time, but to believe you are a victim.
Cory Clark: And they find it’s associated with a host of negative personality traits as well, and general behavioral tendencies, so attributing bad motives to other people, holding grudges, ruminating on all of the things that have happened to you in your life that didn’t go the way you want.
Cory Clark: Having that personality would be, as you said, I think pretty unpleasant, and it’s associated with a lot of things that most people wouldn’t want to be characterized as themselves.
Chelsea Follett: We normally do think of victimhood as something caused by an external situation or oppression, but you’re saying that in some cases, it can actually be a stable personality trait. A person could literally win the lottery and still see themselves as a victim, maybe, in some extreme cases. It’s really interesting.
Chelsea Follett: But the piece is called The Evolutionary Advantages of Playing Victim, so presumably this is something that evolved a long time ago when people lived in a very different way than they do today. But you also write that historically, our ancestors may have been better able to discern habitual or false victim signalers from those in true need.
Chelsea Follett: So why is that? To what extent do you think this is a recent phenomenon encouraged by the way we live now, and the rise of social media and so forth? And to what extent is this actually an ancient psychological tendency that our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to contend with?
Cory Clark: So first on the title, I was not actually happy with the title. [chuckle] ‘Cause I don’t really consider it an evolutionary theory, but I do bring up the point that we have this, there’s a difference between human societies when human psychology was evolving and what the… How the incentives affect people today.
Cory Clark: When human societies were much smaller, you lived in smaller communities, we weren’t… Our social networks now are global, they’re on the internet. I’m talking, if I’m on Twitter, I might be talking to people from 120 different countries at once, and I have relationships with people from all different countries and I don’t even know what countries they’re from, but I would consider them at least an acquaintance, maybe even a friend.
Cory Clark: So our social relationships are just very different now than they used to be. It used to be that people, social groups were small enough that people could really kind of keep up with what was going on in their community and know who’s doing what to whom, also know both pieces of the equation, who’s the perpetrator and who’s the victim? Did the victim do anything to the perpetrator to make the perpetrator lash out at them? They have more information about what happened in that scenario.
Cory Clark: Whereas now you see something on TikTok from a total stranger, you have no idea who this person is, what their personality is like. You don’t ever hear the other side of the story. Maybe not ever. You rarely hear the other side of the story. And so we have this incomplete information, which is relatively new.
Cory Clark: I don’t think human psychology has changed much since the internet was invented, or since these social media pages were just invented. Yeah, I guess “invented” would be the word. Human psychology takes a really, really long time to change, at least in any drastic way. So human psychology would not have changed, which means we had these tendencies already.
Cory Clark: What’s happening now is people are just exploit… They’re given the opportunity to exploit this tendency. People can see, “Oh, if I claim that this horrible thing happened to me, people will give me sympathy, they’ll give me attention. They’ll retweet me, they’ll follow me. Maybe they’ll give me money. Maybe I’ll become famous.”
Cory Clark: I would say that the tendency to perceive oneself as a victim is probably something that evolved as part of psychology a very long time ago. Were people falsely signaling victimhood thousands of years ago? Probably they were, but they were probably less likely to get away with it too.
Cory Clark: Whereas now, it’s easier to get away with it, and not only is it easier to get away with it, but the possibility of getting benefits is much higher. If you were in a smaller community, what could that community do for you? Whereas now maybe you can get the attention of millions or tens of millions of people. So I think it’s…
Cory Clark: The tendency itself is probably just a part of human nature and has been for a long time, but the current environment where we’re incentivizing people to signal their victimhood to other people, that is probably pretty new, and that might be why this seems to becoming a bigger issue recently, and why psychologists all of a sudden are discovering it and studying it, because it really wasn’t that much of a concept even decades ago.
Chelsea Follett: Right. And you point out that it’s easier to exaggerate victimhood or even invent out of whole cloth a situation of victimhood, when the kind of harm at issue is “invisible, unverifiable and based exclusively on self-reports.” It occurs to me that as we’ve progressed as a society and living standards have improved in the rich countries to the point where for many people, they’re no longer dealing with starvation or the threat of physical violence… I think that makes the kind of harms that we’re dealing with now harder to verify.
Chelsea Follett: You can tell if someone is wounded from a war, you can see if someone is actually wasting away from starvation, but now as we’ve moved on to what are called “first world problems”, problems of self-esteem, of… You gave that example of mansplaining. Micro-aggressions. Someone saying something condescending and making us worry that maybe it’s because they’re sexist, that kind of thing.
Chelsea Follett: When you’re not worried about where your next meal is coming from, you’re more likely to be worried about someone being mildly condescending to you, and make a big deal out of it. Right? And worry about whether that’s motivated by sexism and so forth. So I think as we progress past having to worry as much about physical forms of harm, more easily verifiable forms of harm, the kinds of harm that we’re dealing with now — self-esteem, psychological health — are a lot harder to verify and harder to measure. And you kind of touched on this.
Cory Clark: Yeah, a lot of…
Chelsea Follett: Sorry?
Cory Clark: A lot of these kinds of things, and I think just a lot of what you hear in the culture now, it’s these psychological harms. And you can’t see it. Yeah, you can’t… If someone got their leg chopped off, you can see that they got their leg chopped off. If they say that they’re traumatized, how do you know that they’re traumatized? You can’t know.
Cory Clark: And that is a sort of environmental feature that allows people who would take advantage of this kind of thing to do so much more effectively because they can claim these kinds of psychological harms that we now care a lot about as a society, especially as you said, things are physically pretty comfortable for a lot of us, so we complain about things like trauma or…
Cory Clark: I’m trying to think, what are the buzzwords that you hear a lot these days from people. Oh, they “feel unsafe,” but it’s like, what kind of safety are we talking about? Do you feel physically unsafe? Or you feel psychologically unsafe? So these kinds of claims that are only knowable inside the person’s head, we cannot verify.
Cory Clark: And if people know that those kinds of claims work and they really don’t have anything… If they really don’t have… They really aren’t a true victim, that’s a good piece of evidence to use, because nobody can tell whether it’s real or not. I think that’s probably one reason that is sort of like the mode of… That’s kind of the message that people choose to use when they’re making these claims of victimhood, is precisely because it cannot be verified, so it’s easier to get away with.
Cory Clark: And yeah, the same thing with the micro-aggressions, how do we know that this micro-aggression is actually having a harmful impact on your life, to know how much we should be concerned about these kinds of things? And it’s just all impossible to… I don’t know if it’s impossible to measure, it’s really hard.
Cory Clark: Yeah, so that just adds on to the package of reasons why people who would want to take advantage of being a victim would choose to do so in that precise way and make claims about psychological damage that other people cannot possibly verify. And at the same time, other people don’t want to question that because it seems really insensitive or callous to say, “Well, I don’t believe that you’re traumatized.”
Cory Clark: Because what if they really are traumatized, you don’t wanna doubt the sincerity of that sort of claim, if it’s a true claim. But if we never question the sincerity of it, then other people can make those claims falsely and advantage from them. So it’s a hard problem for people who are trying to know where to put their resources for concern and financial assistance and those kinds of things.
Chelsea Follett: And related to the idea of callousness, if you question what someone’s saying, you could be perceived as callous, but at the same time when it’s obvious that some victimhood is false, it creates a bunch of perceptions about how bad the world actually is that might not be accurate or it could create doubt for actual victims.
Chelsea Follett: What do you think are some of the social harms of false victim mentalities? And do you think false victimhood mindsets might contribute in some way to partisan divides or just a lack of civility in general in society, or misunderstandings across different viewpoints?
Cory Clark: So the first part of question was what are the consequence. Some of the consequences you said, I see as a pretty big. Ones you already mentioned I see as pretty big ones, like mis-allocating resources but also casting doubt on the true victims. People who really do have some kind of trauma, are suffering in some way, who we really would wannt to help.
Cory Clark: If we start to notice all these people potentially falsely signaling victimhood, now we can’t trust people and give assistance when people really are struggling. So really the biggest victims of the victim signaling are the true victims. But then of course, it also, it takes advantage of people who want to help other people.
Cory Clark: If you have that kind of experience, if you were to sort of be duped by a victim signaler, I suspect that would just make you more cynical and you wouldn’t want to help other people in the future. It goes back to this kind of cyclical effect, that it kind of erodes what would otherwise be something that’s really nice about humanity, which is we want to help other people when they’re struggling.
Cory Clark: And sometimes we even want to help total strangers when they’re struggling, but that only works when you can kind of trust the information you’re receiving, and it’s clear that you can’t always trust that information, and it’s also really hard to try to collect the proper data that you would need to know whether it’s genuine, because again, it appears callous. So it’s this really, really difficult problem.
Cory Clark: In terms of political issues, so I do think probably. I think there was even, there’s some semi-related work that to me would suggest that probably liberals or conservatives aren’t necessarily more prone to wanting to signal their victimhood, but I suspect it does contribute to political conflict, in the sense that I do feel like both liberals and conservatives have a tendency to perceive their own side as being sort of disadvantaged in a variety of ways.
Cory Clark: I sometimes will tell liberals, “Well, liberals have more power.” They’ll be like, “What?” And I’m like, “Well, they have power in the media and academia and things like that,” but they don’t want to think that they’re powerful, it seems to me. Which is interesting, because why wouldn’t you want to be powerful?
Cory Clark: And then on the right, I think there’s a lot of feeling like they’re being left behind in some way, that they’re more traditional and society’s moved on without them. You get a little bit of this on both sides. I think liberals would want to say that conservatives are victimizing liberals in a variety of ways, and conservatives would want to say the same thing about liberals.
Cory Clark: And if they were to do that very successfully, you would get the spiral of both of them claiming to be victimized by the other, which at some point, you’re making this a really focal point of these kinds of discussions and you want to be like, “Let’s debate the issues. Let’s debate policy, let’s talk about evidence. Not who did what to whom, and who’s bad and who’s good.” So yeah, I do think it could be pretty dysfunctional and probably contributes to some of the dysfunction now.
Chelsea Follett: From a policy perspective, I think that if many people believe that the world is worse than it is, that other people are worse than they are, that obviously can have a negative effect on policy making. You need to have a realistic view of the world to create policies.
Cory Clark: Ideally. [chuckle]
Chelsea Follett: Right. I want to get back to victimhood in a moment, but I do want to briefly digress because I think this is a great segue into talking about the Adversarial Collaboration Project that you direct, and that’s so interesting to me as a potential way to help move debates forward and ultimately promote progress.
Chelsea Follett: Could you just talk briefly about what adversarial collaboration is, and how it could help to lower the temperature on some of these contentious debates, when there is very passionate disagreement, and then we’ll shift back to talking about victim mentality.
Cory Clark: I love to talk about adversarial collaboration. So this is… adversarial collaborations have been around for, even the term, for at least a couple of decades. I think it was originally Daniel Kahneman’s idea, although he wasn’t the first one ever to do one. But it’s basically where scholars who have been disagreeing in the literature break the traditional model of academic dispute and work together and try to design empirical tests that would adjudicate their competing perspectives.
Cory Clark: Now, the traditional model is, scholar A says, “X,” scholar B says, “Not X,” and then scholar A says, “Yeah,” scholar B says, “No.” And they come back, they go back and forth. Sometimes they write critical commentaries on each other’s work. A lot of the time they pick up teams of collaborators. So scholar A works with this group of people and scholar B works with this group of people.
Cory Clark: Not only do these two never work together, their collaborators don’t even work together. So there’s almost no… There’s almost no genuine conversation happening where they could try to work out their differences, “Why do I think this, and why do you think that?” Now, in science, you’d like to think we all have a collective interest in figuring out what is true, and so somebody who disagrees with you would be a great person to talk to to figure out what is true. “How could you say that? Why we disagreeing? And let’s figure out why we’re disagreeing.”
Cory Clark: That’s not how things go. A lot of the time, these debates become personal, the scholars start to hate each other, they often mischaracterize one another’s arguments, and it’s just so unnecessarily contentious. And so what we’re trying to do with the Adversarial Collaboration Project, our goal is to make adversarial collaborations be the normal and expected way scholars resolve their disputes.
Cory Clark: So if I publish something and someone disagrees with me, the first thing I do is send them an email and say, “Hey, let’s chat,” and then figure out why we’re disagreeing, and then together work out a plan to test that.” We suggest people do this with a moderator, because I think it will be really hard for people to just do it one-on-one with an adversary.
Cory Clark: Bring on a moderator that you both trust and figure it out, and our hope is that this will make progress so much faster where we’re getting all this conflicting information, this person is an expert, this person is also an expert, and they’re saying contradictory things and they’re saying contradictory things for decades. It’s not really helpful for people who are trying to figure out what’s true and are trying to make effective policy. So we’re hoping that this will be a faster way to make progress on debates.
Cory Clark: And then related to your point on, can we turn down the heat on some of these? The hope is if both sides commit to, this is an empirical argument, this can be settled with empirical data. This isn’t about who’s bad and who’s good, this is about which theory better predicts empirical reality and in which contexts.
Cory Clark: Hopefully, when scholars really try to do these adversarial collaborations, and so far it’s been my experience, which has been… Maybe I got lucky so far, I think I’m doing nine of them right now. [chuckle] It’s a lot. So far, people are really, they’re good, they’re getting along, they’re talking to people that they would not have talked to before. They’re figuring out a lot of the time that they had misunderstandings about the other person’s position, they tend to make their opponent more extreme than they really are, and more rigid than they really are.
Cory Clark: And when they come together and talk to the true person and not their made-up enemy in their head, the conversations are going, are going well so far. So I’m hopeful. It’s really early, we only started this initiative the start of this year, so we’ll see. We’ll see if I just create more enemies. But so far I’m very hopeful that we’ll make some progress and will make some enemies friends and colleagues.
Chelsea Follett: That’s great to hear. Yeah, I think seeing your ideological opponents as worse than they are, is just another negative bias that can destroy our view of the world.
Cory Clark: Oh yeah. One of the more replicable findings is we just totally mischaracterize and make them more extreme and more terrible, and I think a big part of that is because we avoid them and we don’t get to know them. So it just, it allows us to hold our illusions about them because we don’t have to confront reality, we can just, you know, make these assumptions and never challenge them.
Chelsea Follett: Absolutely. I think assuming good faith is a good thing to do, and to try to use that as a segue back to the main topic of victimhood, I think assuming good faith is virtuous. And you do mention, and you talked about this a little bit already, the idea of virtuous victim signaling.
Chelsea Follett: You talked about how the sort of person who perceives themselves as a perpetual victim also tends to virtue signal. But what is this combination of virtue singling and victimhood signaling? What does that mean, “virtuous victim signaling,” and can you give maybe examples?
Cory Clark: These are people who… The signaling part really is in reference to how much you’re trying to communicate what you’re like to other people, so with the virtuous victim signaling, you’re both signaling your virtue, trying to make yourself look morally better than you really are, and trying to signal your victimhood and make it seem like the world is unfair to you.
Cory Clark: And this is probably because people treat victims better than normal people, and people treat virtuous people better than normal people, and so there’s probably this personality type that will kind of take advantage of whatever they can to extract resources from other people, and signaling victimhood and signaling virtue are both good ways to do that.
Cory Clark: So the paper that was looking at this virtuous victimhood personality trait, they looked at people who score high on this, and they find that they are willing to engage in a lot of sort of manipulative behavior to get what they want. So in one study it was, there’s a task that’s used in psychology studies where you basically give people an opportunity to cheat.
Cory Clark: So this one looked like a coin-flip task, and they say, “You should make your guess. A coin will flip, but sometimes it gets stuck and you might get to flip it again, but if it gives you an opportunity to flip it again, you should just skip the question.” And they make it so that people always lose the coin-flip task. They lose it once and then they lose it, if they cheat the first time and flip again when they shouldn’t have, then they lose it again. And then if they do it again a third time, then they win and they get a dollar.
Cory Clark: So people who are higher on this virtuous victim signaling are more likely to cheat in this coin-flip task and continue to flip the coin until they win the money that they didn’t win on their first coin flip. And then another one, was one where they have people imagine this work scenario, I think they’re an intern at some company and they’re in competition with this other intern.
Cory Clark: And they describe the situation like, “This intern is always nice to your face, but something kind of feels off. You have a feeling they might be talking about you behind your back,” or something like that. But they don’t get any concrete information that this person ever did anything. They say the person’s nice to your face.
Cory Clark: And then they have them do this like performance evaluation of their colleague, this other intern, and they find that people are more like… People who score on virtuous victim signaling are more likely to say that that person discriminated against them, and also other concrete things that weren’t mentioned in the scenario, like, “Talked bad about me in front of our colleagues, put me down publicly,” these kinds of things that explicitly were not mentioned. It says that they’re always friendly to you. [chuckle]
Cory Clark: And they’re more likely to say that these things happened. So they’re taking this other person down, presumably to get them out of the running for the job at the internship. And so what’s interesting is that these are people who are saying that they’re morally better than other people, they think they’re very morally good people, and they signal that they’re morally good people, but they’re actually more likely to cheat and take advantage or take other people down to get ahead.
Cory Clark: And this is related to all those other personality traits, like narcissism, Machiavellianism. These people who have this personality trait, although certainly might be victims in some contexts, although they did control for some demographic variables, which might be some indicator of whether you’re truly a victim often in your life.
Cory Clark: But these people who score high on this virtuous victim signaling are behaving more immorally despite seeing themselves as more moral and seeing the world as against them. Which I guess could make some sense. If you think the world is against you, you feel entitled to cheat and take advantage of other people maybe. But these people are portraying themselves as victims, and by most people’s standards, they’re more likely to engage in a lot of bad behaviors.
Chelsea Follett: I think it’s easy to write this off as there’s a small group of people with this bad personality type who engage in this, but you actually cite a bunch of polling showing that the majority of people have some inclination towards seeing themselves as a victim. In the piece, you cite a poll of Americans showing that 65% of adults believe about the system works against people like them.
Chelsea Follett: 55% of respondents, at least moderately agreed with the idea that they rarely get what they deserve in life, and this is of course, in the richest country in the world. And I imagine a lot of research on this polls psychology students at universities, so an advantaged group, even within a very wealthy place to live. And so it seems that the majority of people have some of these tendencies. Is that correct? To see themselves as worse off than they are.
Cory Clark: Yeah, so I don’t know how many people we would say, like, score high on this trait of virtuous victim signaling, so I don’t know how common we could say these very manipulative people are, only that we know that some people who signal their victimhood are really being manipulative. Or rather, they are manipulative in a variety of ways.
Cory Clark: But I do think just a general tendency to see yourself as a victim is probably very normal, and probably among people who aren’t necessarily bad people and aren’t trying to take advantage of other people, at least not consciously. [chuckle] Yeah, that one, that second question made me chuckle when I first read it in the paper, that most people at least moderately agree that they rarely get what they deserve in life.
Cory Clark: Which is interesting because it suggests that people think like they’re doing all this good stuff and good things are happening to other people and not happening to them. Presumably that can’t be true of everyone. If most people aren’t getting what they desire in life, then someone else must be getting too much. Right? I would think. They’re getting the job that they didn’t deserve because you deserved it.
Cory Clark: But people have a tendency to see themselves as on the losing end of these social interactions, it seems, and that the system works against them. Some people think that they do get what they deserve in life, but they’re in the minority. [chuckle] So yeah, I do think that it’s probably a pretty normal tendency, and then the fact that you can kind of turn it on a little bit when you make these competitive victimhood claims, suggests that different features of our circumstances could make people who maybe wouldn’t have a tendency to perceive themselves as victims, suddenly perceive themselves as victims.
Cory Clark: I think you have this a lot with… There are lots of men’s rights groups these days, and I think potentially what’s happened is, for such a long time we’ve been saying how society is sexist against women, and this was perpetrated by men and men are keeping women down. Obviously, there’s a period of time when that was very obvious and it was definitely happening. It’s harder to see that now in modern society with how many programs we have to help women and how hard people have been working to try to eliminate gender differences.
Cory Clark: But if women continue to claim that they’re being victimized in all these contexts, that is going to activate a desire in some men to want to be victims too. So that’s potentially a partial explanation for the emergence of these new men’s rights groups, that it’s sort of a reaction to women’s…
Cory Clark: Women’s complaint of victimhood has activated them now to want to see themselves as bigger victims, which then I think makes women be like, “No, you don’t get to have… You don’t get to be the victim.” Which then probably activates them further. So it’s a complicated issue and I don’t know, I don’t know how you end the cycle.
Chelsea Follett: Right, that competitive victimhood cycle. One last question. You’ve spoken a bit about some of the negative effects of this, but what do you think is the worst harm that comes out of this phenomenon?
Cory Clark: You mean just general false victim signaling? Yeah, that’s hard to say. I really think probably the worst is that they’re taking advantage of essentially two people, they’re taking advantage of people who are actually victims by taking resources that other people might have given them, and then they are taking advantage of trusting people who want to help other people.
Cory Clark: Now, is it worse if people do this and it erodes trust? It makes people more cynical. It makes people less willing to help other people. And it makes people want to be victims themselves, which starts the cycle. It’s really hard. I think it’s a combination of a lot of things that makes it so we can’t trust one another, and that we want to engage in the victim game ourselves.
Cory Clark: Which, if everyone’s a victim, then it’s really a struggle. Who’s going to help whom? [chuckle] So yeah, I don’t know, I don’t know how I would put a price tag on all the different pieces.
Chelsea Follett: Yeah, there are definitely a lot of different harms that can come from it, and I agree with you that depleting resources from actual victims is really important. But I also do think, just the creation of a widespread misperception about how well most people are doing and the frequency of maybe different kinds of victimhood or real instances of victimhood, is very damaging.
Chelsea Follett: There was a tweet that went viral recently, basically saying that the United States is this dystopian, terrible place. Among the worst places that there have ever been to live. Something like that. The person tweeting it probably… they may have actually genuinely believed it. They may believe that, but it does show a lack of historical perspective, and certainly global perspective, to believe that when you’re in one of the wealthiest places in the world, that you are in a complete dystopia.
Chelsea Follett: And so one of the things we do at HumanProgress.org, is to try to promote a data-based view of the world and combat distorting biases, including the tendency, maybe, to see oneself as a victim that is so pervasive and that you really describe so well in this piece. So congratulations on a great article, I hope people will check it out, and your other work on this topic and others, and your other research on moral and political psychology. Thank you so much for speaking with me.
Cory Clark: Thanks for having me. This was fun.